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    The Evolution of a Family Recipe

    March 7, 2006 by Brandy Vencel

    As a teen, I avoided cooking as much as possible. I liked doing things I was good at, and since I had never practiced cooking, I wasn’t very good at it. It wasn’t until my college years, when my paychecks were conspicuously lacking in zeros, that preparing my own food became a necessity.

    I started with foods that came in boxes. I couldn’t afford much meat, but Top Ramen was a bargain, and I soon learned that other titles, usually ending in the the words “a Roni” were also economical, and a bit more flavorful. When I married, it was my desire to take good care of my husband. We both worked, but every Wednesday, on my day off, I made sure that we had a big, satisifying meal. As I practiced, I became confident, and our menu became much more exciting.

    I’m not too sure about practice making perfect, but I do think practice can make one good at something, or at least better than before. I wasn’t able to cook from scratch right away. But simple directions on a Top Ramen box led to a bit more complicated directions on a Bisquick box, which eventually led to the discovery that following directions isn’t really that difficult after all, and so I made pancakes from scratch.

    There are a number of good reasons to cook from scratch. Meals tend to be more healthful and economical. Another benefit that I have recently discovered is that when a meal is broken down into its parts, it is much easier to modify. I can discover how to make a meal just the way my husband likes it {or my son, for that matter}. A meal that was only so-so can become a favorite by utilizing spices that I know my family has an affection for.

    This is how recipes become family recipes. Something that is standard {for instance, a basic formulation for a common soup} is modified over time until it fits the taste of the family. A family’s identity can reveal itself through this final, personalized recipe. A meal in a box can never do this for a family.

    Please don’t think that I never cook from a box, because I do. In fact, morning sickness is the number one cause of box-eating around here. This is quickly followed up by the “emergency” cause {i.e., I didn’t plan a meal because we were supposed to be eating with another family, but one of us became ill, and we were uninvited at the last minute}. Lastly, there is the bad day cause. Some days are just a bit much {not that this happens with great frequency}, and I ask my husband if he minds if we run get something somewhere, or eat from a box, instead of me cooking, and he usually humors me {or breaks out the Bisquick box himself}.

    So how does a family recipe evolve out of a regular recipe? I’ll use one of our family favorites as an example. Here is the original {great way to get little people to eat their spinach, by the way}, as my mother cooked it when I was growing up:


    Spinach Roll-Up


    -cooked bacon, sausage or pepperoni
    -10 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed & drained
    -6 oz. shredded provolone cheese
    -small can of sliced black olives
    -1 egg
    -minced garlic, minced onion, dried basil, and pepper to taste
    -1 egg white
    -1 t. sesame seeds
    -10 oz. package refrigerated pizza crust
    -jar of pizza sauce


    -preheat oven to 350 degrees
    -combine meat, spinach, cheese, olives, whole egg, and spices in a bowl
    -roll out the pizza dough on a sprayed baking sheet and form a 14″x10″ rectangle
    -spread the spinach mixture onto dough within 1″ of edges
    -start from the long end and roll it up, seal the ends and seam
    -place the roll seam-down, brush with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds
    -bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes
    -let stand 5 minutes before cutting; serve with pizza sauce


    This was a recipe I recently chose to break down and play with. It was important, however, that I master the recipe in its original form first. I needed to know what pizza dough was like and how it behaved. I needed to discover which type of meat Si and E. preferred {it’s bacon, by the way}. I needed to know that no one around here really likes minced onions.

    The next step is to actually make some of the store-bought “ingredients” on the list myself. Here are a couple recipes for them:


    Easy Homemade Pizza Dough
    Homemade Pizza Sauce from Scratch


    I choose one of the two recipes above, and master it. Then, I add in the second recipe. I have found there is no sense in overwhelming myself by trying to learn too much at once. Besides, everyone gets hungry while waiting for me to figure it out!

    The last step to personalizing the recipe is to get creative. Maybe someday we’ll grow our own spinach, and use it straight from the garden. Maybe we’ll toss in some other favorites {like red and yellow bell peppers}. Most likely, we’ll first decide that the above pizza sauce recipe would be much better without the rosemary because we just don’t like rosemary all that much.

    And in the end, we’ll have our very own family recipe, the stuff that legends are made of. What was once possibly clipped from a magazine somewhere can have such potential. And perhaps this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in this area. In my desire to follow the recipe rules, and make it perfect every time, I was not unlike those strip malls that look exactly the same, no matter what city or state one is in. The meals had a personality belonging to a stranger, rather than a loved one. And so I’m on a journey to make our meals become less of an inconvenient task I perform between four and five almost every afternoon, to an expression of who my family is and what they like, a tangible and tasty labor of love.


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  • Reply Brandy March 7, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    It IS good. Maybe I will post that linguine recipe. That’s yummy, too. And it’s already from scratch, unless one wants to make their own noodles, or perhaps grow and slaughter their own chicken! Hehe…

  • Reply Grace March 7, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    Yum! This recipe sounds so good! It’s making me hungry. Does it look like Captain Crunch? =) Anyway, I think you will need to post your Energizing Linguine recipe too.

    Love ya!

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